Essays on the stages of his life—boyhood in Vienna, the deracination of flight from Nazism, the trials of assimilation in New York—from one of the renowned practitioners of the form.
Morton’s first book in 15 years puts readers in touch, at first, with Fritz Mandelbaum, Morton as a boy in his native Vienna in 1936. He is in a dingily ornate movie house gaping in awe at the incomparable boulevardier onscreen, the Austrian émigré Fritz Austerlitz, his personal hero and role model, better known in America as Fred Astaire. Soon, his other role model, an often austere father whose disciplinarian veneer almost on a daily basis reveals a heart of gold, will shepherd the family, via a London sojourn of several years, to New York in the manner of countless Jewish families during the rise of Hitler. Ensconced in upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights, known locally as the “Fourth Reich” due to its concentration of refugees from the Third, the family name becomes Morton the day his father realizes that no Mandelbaum will get the union job he desperately needs. Morton’s recollections evoke a depth of feeling in which amazement and poignancy constantly coexist, so that even the terrifying flight from Austria, through checkpoints where one’s entire future lies beneath the looming rubber stamp of an official whose boredom could at any moment unleash a brutal whim, becomes simultaneously a marvelous adventure. As an apprentice in a New York bakery, Mortron’s drive to assimilate supersedes almost everything else except his ongoing Astaire worship. Mastering English—the precise accent, the slang, the profanity—becomes crucial. “I have spent ninety cents of my first [bakery] earnings on a dictionary,” Morton recalls. It’s “a used one but sizeable,” and he hopes that “expanding my vocabulary might diminish my accent somehow, perhaps by diluting it among a greater number of words.”
Genuinely sentimental and stimulating on a generation’s family values.